Thirty six rounds and nine judges proved incapable of deciding a definitive winner between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, but all it took on Saturday night at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, was a right hand delivered like a hammer to distinguish finally between these two great rivals. Indeed, though Pacquiao and Marquez have transcended their sport like few others in the eight years succeeding their first epic encounter, an impression had nonetheless persisted before this bout that neither was quite capable of transcending the other. Pacquiao had surged through several weight classes while laying waste to a veritable who’s who of superstars—de la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Mosley—and yet the spectre of Marquez had followed him at every turn, the diminutive Mexican determining to stretch his body to its absolute limits in the bloody-minded pursuit of something worth seemingly more than consensus victory: recognition. Though considered by most onlookers to be the true winner of at least one of their previous dalliances, a desire to have his hand raised and name exulted proved, for Marquez, irresistible.
Indeed, in years to come, this rivalry will surely be remembered as the most important of the past decade. Israel Vazquez and Marquez’ younger brother Rafael can rightfully claim to have produced consistently greater fights, yet none of their four battles was fought on either a stage of comparable grandeur or before an audience of such magnitude. Though the present era of TV packaging has produced an increasingly diluted product while making ever more pressing fiscal demands on the viewing audience, Pacquiao and Marquez conspired to return prizefighting to its most breathtaking and primitive roots. Pursue fame and fortune and victory at all costs, they seemed to agree, but make it a contest, a ritual, a spectacle, and honour your antagonist afterwards for his strength and bravery. Abandon reserve and live urgently, vitally: surrender the abstractions of the mind to the primacy of the body. Look your opponent in the eyes before you fight him and celebrate him afterwards.
It is this remarkable and shared demeanour which means that Pacquiao and Marquez will be remembered in terms of reverence and awe in the future, sentiments which Floyd Mayweather Jr, by comparison, shall never excite. No matter how many mundane victories the American racks up before his next retirement—and, moreover, no matter how many millions of dollars he accumulates in the process—the kind of fondness Pacquiao and Marquez inspire will always elude him. Where they have engaged in the most baldly punishing and yet most human of all pursuits—chasing the high pitch of gesture and glamour to which all artists aspire, creating beauty through the body in the face of inconceivable pains and dangers—Mayweather’s cold, clinical precision is at once so scientific as to render it sterile. When Pacquiao and Marquez collide, the line between life and death which all boxers must straddle becomes blurred: the very moment of their engagement is larger than life itself. They are the great humanists of this era, while Mayweather, by comparison, is but a scientist.
The first round of this particular instalment of the series appeared to pick up almost immediately where the third fight had left off. Having performed conservatively in the final round of their previous encounter under a perhaps naive misapprehension that the judges would reward his performance, Marquez began in similarly circumspect style, circling away from Pacquiao’s left hand while occasionally thrusting out a jab to the body and head. Pacquiao, in response, was eager and energetic on the outside, his incessant albeit frenetic head movement indicating work done by Freddie Roach to ensure his fighter would not present such a stationary target to his Mexican opponent. Indeed, on the couple of occasions when Marquez attempted to catch Pacquiao with one of the more successful combinations from the third fight—a lead left uppercut followed by either a straight cross or looping overhand right—Pacquiao was sufficiently alert as to slide from danger and catch his opponent with arrowed lefts and firm rights. If ostensibly little appeared to have changed from the previous bout beyond the greater definition of Marquez’ deltoids and Pacquiao’s newly grey trunks, Roach nonetheless seemed to have equipped Pacquiao with better tools to deal with his hypnotic foe.
It was, however, that preparation which appeared to hamper Pacquiao in a startling, shocking third stanza. Biting on a huge Marquez feint—where the Mexican seemed for all the world as though he was preparing to throw the aforementioned left uppercut—Pacquiao was subsequently sent crashing to the canvas when an unexpected overhand right caught him exposed and off-balance. In a sport of verbose masculinity, the need to convey an impression of invincibility is one of the most pressing imperatives. Though stopped twice on body shots early in his career, Pacquiao had seemed mythically impervious to blows to the head, a remarkable, rare specimen to whom the miserable laws of science did not appear to apply. Indeed, though time’s encroachment on Pacquiao has gathered apace in the past eighteen months, the Filipino was still presumed to be impossible to hurt and, moreover, impossible to stop. Here, however, Pacquiao’s chin—long assumed to be chiselled from granite—was suddenly proven to be human, fallible. Yet the astonishment which quickly spread through the arena as the ten-time world champion stood to take an eight count from referee Bayless was ultimately nothing compared to what would come in three rounds’ time.
Before that, though, Pacquiao fans dared to dream that their hero was not the mere mortal he increasingly appeared to resemble. Marquez—aged, gnarled Marquez—continued to feint and gesture on the outside, but Pacquiao, focus renewed, seemed reticent to bite. Barring one wicked Marquez jab which forced his head back as though struck by a moment of the most ecstatic revelation, the contest’s violence appeared to be directed ever more towards the chin and nose of the Mexican. Indeed, in the fifth stanza, Pacquiao would even up the knockdown stakes with a sweetly timed straight left which caused his legendary opponent to touch the canvas for the fifth time in the series. The assault which followed appeared yet further evidence that Pacquiao was by no means ready to concede. Diminished perhaps, but in the whirlgig of shots which subsequently slashed the Mexican’s febrile face, Pacquiao seemed to return to the fighting style so frequently exoticised by HBO’s commentary team. A right hook shook the bloodied Marquez down to his boots—and, as his legs quivered and his chin was forced to withstand the considerable fury remaining in Pacquiao’s fists, the only practitioner seemingly on the verge of being rendered mortal was Marquez himself.
Scenting blood and a chance to claim that all-elusive defining victory, Pacquiao sought to terminate the action in an aggressive mode conspicuous only by its absence from his past three fights. Throwing with increasingly reckless abandon, this, it seemed, was the Filipino sensation who had stunned global audiences with his furious offensive purpose, whose left hand could knock out a mule and whose right—once a gauche, clumsy hole in his armoury—could also enact comparable cruelty. This, it seemed, was the Manny Pacquiao who had charged from flyweight to junior middleweight, leaving behind a string of pulverised victims.
Perhaps, however, as we began to believe in the illusion, Pacquiao began to believe too—for with two seconds to go in the sixth round, he flicked out a lazy jab with little concern for his unguarded beard and, suddenly, a Marquez right hand detonated on the point of the chin with all the requisite power, velocity and speed needed to shatter bone and render the strongest of competitors unconscious. If the preceding six rounds had seemingly flown by, time now slowed to a wretched drip as Pacquiao’s lifeless body thudded to the canvas and the shocking truth hammered about the arena: the unstoppable had been stopped; the uncrackable, cracked. Everything that had seemed for so long certain and assumed was, in one moment, undone. Juan Manuel Marquez finally had his victory.
In a considerable career full of wild oscillations from the brilliant to the downright absurd, Norman Mailer’s writing on boxing is often more memorable than his fiction. Boxing, he says, is ‘a religion of blood... which scores the lungs of men like D.H. Lawrence, and burns the brain of men like Ernest Hemingway, when they explore out into the mystery, searching to discover some part of the secret.’ Over eight years and four sensational fights, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez let us all in on some small part of the secret and, moreover, revealed the mythic proportions of personality which can drive a man to feats outrageous in their depth. While Pacquiao’s accelerated demise has seemingly accorded with his ever-expanding life outside of boxing—a life which numerous practitioners have demonstrated must be absolutely subordinated to the immediate demands of the sport—his already-stated desire to fight on hints perhaps at the difficulty of embracing that outside life in its totality. How does the fighter convert his specific embodied capital into the domain of mundane daily existence? It is a question few have ever provided suitable answers for. However, in their remarkable careers and, moreover, in this remarkable series of fights, both Pacquiao and Marquez have forged their own immortal corner in boxing history which will surely remain forever vibrant and alive to those fortunate enough to have followed them. When they come—as they surely will—to evaluate their future plans, hopefully that shall be born in mind.